Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Inside AR2007 Animal Rights Conference

The good folks at Americans for Medical Progress attended some of the events at the "AR2007" animal rights conference this past weekend, and I have posted their first report for readers' information in its entirety. I have thought that sometime it might be fun to attend one of these AR conferences not only to get more knowledge about their agenda and tactics , but to get more of a sense of what these people are like, and what makes them tick. At 6'3" and 225 lbs, however, I would probably stick out like a sore thumb. I don't exactly look like I live on tofu and bean sprouts. Anyway, what is interesting here is the growing rift in the AR movement between the more militant factions and the less militant factions, as well as the rift between the hard-core "abolition now" crowd and those who see incrementalism as the way to achieve their goals. This apparently growing rift is good news for those of us who disagree with AR: as the saying goes, "a house divided cannot stand". Kudos to AMP for "going behind enemy lines" as it were.

Los Angeles, Sunday 22 July 2007

AR 2007 - Direct Action or Hearts and Minds?
Navigating the Chasm in the AR Movement

"For the past five years our movement has become progressively more fractured over the issues of 'violence' and 'welfare vs. abolition'.
Intellectual discourse has given way to breakdowns in communications, public denunciations and the boycotting of this conference
by several mainstream groups."

- Alex Hershaft, founder, National Animal Rights Convention
AR2007 Plenary Session Friday, 20 July 2007

This year's National Animal Rights Convention - AR2007 - offered a clear but brief glimpse of a chasm in the movement. There's the militant faction of the animal rights movement: a small number of direct action advocates who have recently taken several body blows for their tactics and now appear to be struggling to regain their footing both internally and within the animal rights movement in general. Other activists are just as determined the priorities should rest on enhancing the movement's public image and educational outreach.

To be sure, most of the attendees of AR2007, held this year in Los Angeles, had little interest in the meeting's undercurrent of angst about tactics and priorities. Many were newcomers to the animal rights movement. Others were there to compare notes on vegan lifestyles, gain peer encouragement for their local campaigns from spay-neuter programs to getting veggie-dogs to be sold at ballparks, for their once-a-year update on the status of national campaigns, or to sell/buy specially-targeted products ranging from books on the benefits of a raw food diet to pleather stilettos.

And it is unlikely that the militant factions will have much presence at the Taking Action for Animals Conference in Washington, D.C. at the end of the month. The chief sponsor of that meeting, the Humane Society of the United States, while sharing with militants the extreme goals of the movement, is intent on showing a moderate face to the public, the main source of HSUS funding. Look for a well-packaged and managed series of "animal protection" discussions there, and emphasis on strategies for winning hearts and minds.

Given our limited resources, and in order to provide AMP News Service readers with a timely report on the flavor of the meeting and current trends in the activists' opposition to animal-based research, AMP attended only the AR2007 sessions focused on that topic, and the plenary sessions which featured some (but by no means all) of the movement's thought leaders. We also talked one-on-one with some of the key proponents of militant action.

We do not intend this to be a report on the full range of activities of the conference, but on how animal research was discussed by AR2007 participants, and to seek to learn from an unusual public display of the dynamics of the militant faction that encourages direct action and, for some, violence, as a legitimate tactic in its attempt to stop medical progress.


Those of us who have attended the National Animal Rights Convention for years found a familiar four-day format, including multiple tracks of workshops to draw new activists further into the movement and to provide support and encouragement to veteran activists.

Added to the program this year, however, were workshops and a plenary session focused on the new Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and what the Equal Justice Alliance and other activist groups claim to be "government repression of activism." A case study of the successful prosecution and conviction of six SHAC leaders was also presented by activist and self-proclaimed 'independent journalist' Will Potter and Audra Lindsey, a longtime SHAC spokesperson.

Familiar names are on the list of those who presented a case against the use of animals in research: Michael Budkie, Camille Hankins, Matt Rosell, Andrew Knight and even Alex Pacheco, reflecting on the Silver Spring Monkeys case that launched PETA to prominence in the early 1980s. It may be more significant to note those not on the speaker's roster. Among the absentees:

  • Former SHAC president Kevin Jonas, a strong presence at previous meetings, now serving his prison term along with five other SHAC members.
  • Rodney Coronado, recently released from prison and facing more legal action. He has - yet again - renounced the use of direct action for the animals and environment.
  • Leaders from HSUS and PETA who, as Hershaft noted, are boycotting AR2007 and will join with other groups in Washington in late July. Wayne Pacelle, JP Goodwin, Ingrid Newkirk, Bruce Friedrich, Michael Markarian and Paul Shapiro are all previous headliners.
  • Neal Barnard and others from PCRM.
  • Ray Greek, a doctor who has written several books that attempt a 'scientific' argument against animal research.
  • Jerry Vlasak, Animal Liberation Press Officer, who staffed the ALPO booth in the exhibit hall, but did not address any session. AMP spoke with Vlasak, who had gained more notoriety last week when he told a reporter that activists had "no choice" but to resort to violence. Vlasak's wife and fellow militant Pamelyn Ferdin also remained voiceless at AR2007.

The workshops that focused on campaigns against animal research relied on the old chestnuts of misrepresentations and rhetoric against research and little in the way of new content, despite the efforts of Australian Andrew Knight of Animal Consultants International to present and explain recent articles from peer-reviewed journals that he (falsely) claimed demonstrated that animal models produce invalid results. He urged activists to "maximize the impact of this new evidence" by using the articles in their media work, at conferences, with legislators, ethics committees and other audiences. "I don't think that grassroots activism, unfortunately, the way we have seen it, in a militant way, is actually going to succeed, unfortunately. I wish that it would, but I don't think it will," he said.

Knight also joined with SAEN's Michael Budkie in a video showcase entitled "Abuse of Animals for Science" that ran decades-old film distributed by PETA and other activists. One member of the audience questioned the age of the film, given dated clothing styles and that some film was shot in black and white. Budkie conceded the video dated from the 1980s and even earlier. but asserted that similar research continues today. He did have one new piece of video he said he had just obtained through a FOIA filing that showed clean and new primate social housing and enrichment - which seems to be in contradiction to Budkie's charges that primates are left to languish in solitary cages and to lose their minds from boredom. Budkie chose to fast-forward that video to make time for PETA's video on high school dissection, appropriately narrated by Alicia Silverstone, best known for her role in "Clueless."

Budkie gave basic chalk talks on how to investigate research through on-line NIH, USDA and Department of Defense databases and FOIA filings. He repeatedly stressed that every activist in the room could and should be doing such investigations of their local research institutions, and then work with SAEN to attract media coverage. "The fact that animal rights activists don't like animal research is not exactly news any more," he cautioned his listeners. He suggested that instead of focusing on protests and other stunts, media coverage is of better quality when generated through news conferences by activists with 'something significant' to report from the investigations they have conducted of grants, research protocols and other materials. "The public is concerned about the waste of tax dollars," Budkie noted. "When you add up the dollar signs, people start to listen."

At the SAEN booth in the exhibit hall, Budkie was relentless in his networking…finding out where people were from and saying, "We should talk." He told a plenary session that one of the reasons he attends the AR conventions is to find "the one activist' in a position to research a facility. He even tried to recruit this AMP correspondent, not at the time realizing the affiliation.

Like Budkie, Camille Hankins of Win Animal Rights (WAR), spoke at several workshops, focusing on the SHAC campaign and direct action, to the point of repeating several stories. She seemed to enjoy the celebrity acclaim she received from direct action supporters and revel in defiance:

"I am proud of the fact that the government is after me. I am proud that I have a FBI file and that they want to monitor everything I say and that the AMP - Americans for Medical Progress - reports everything I say and do in their newsletters." (AMP Editor's note: As regular readers know, Ms. Hankins' comment on the extent of her AMP coverage is quite overstated: we listen to her so you don't have to.)

Nevertheless, Hankins feels the breath of the law on her neck, and anticipates she will follow the example of her SHAC "friend and associate" Kevin Jonas. "I'm not afraid. I'm going to prison. I don't care when I go. I'll know I did it for the animals and it was worth it."

On Saturday evening, Hankins led activists to four locations in LA for protests. A fifth venue was scrubbed because of the potential for confrontation with police, she said.


National AR Convention founder Alex Hershaft made the stark and candid comment that begins this year's report in an extraordinary panel session during Friday evening's plenary meeting attended by some 300 registrants. The session, "Paths to Animal Liberation" dramatically showed the controversy within the movement over direct action tactics.

First up was Armaiti May, a recent graduate of the UC Davis Veterinary School who wants to open her own "vegan veterinary practice." Throughout vet school, she said, some of her classmates often treated her like an outcast because of her animal rights perspective. She said the experience helped her realize that "the unfavorable image of animal activists as a whole and the actions of a few activists in particular, was making my work as an activist much more difficult than it needed to be." May took a passionate and critical look at the impact of some tactics on the public image of animal rights activists:

"Threatening children of executives working for companies engaged in vivisection, sending these people pornographic magazines, shouting menacing slogans outside their homes and vandalizing their personal property do not reflect the positive image of animal rights activists. They play right in to the hands of our opposition by chipping away at our moral high ground, allowing animal abusers to unfairly paint us as terrorists."

May called for constructive, educational outreach that focuses on long-term objectives:

"When considering the merits of an action it is important to consider not only whether the action is morally justifiable but whether it is strategically effective. The animals need us to be likable and respectable in the eyes of the masses in order to win over the public whose support and participation in the struggle for animal liberation is vital for our success. […] Nonviolence and integrity must guide our actions, and also our thoughts and words."

Although her call for a 'perfect vegan world' that included educational outreach and nonviolent activism received applause from portions of the room, she was slapped down by subsequent speakers who received far greater audience approval. Camille Hankins of the militant Win Animal Rights group and the North American Animal Liberation Press Office (ALPO), said that her vision of a 'perfect vegan world' was "when you stand between the animals and those who would kill exploit and abuse them and you stop that killing and that exploitation and that abuse." She continued:

"I would never deny the fact that education is a good thing, outreach is a good thing - we need all these tools. This is about using all the tools in the tool chest. We have such a massive responsibility and a massive job and to do that we need everything we have, to use everything that we have, everything in the tool chest I do believe we need education; I do believe we need open rescue; I do believe that we need good media; I do believe that we need to have our activists respected. But at the same time I really think (animals) need to be freed and I really believe that those mink need to be out of those cages. […]Words mean nothing. Action is everything. Animal liberation or else!"

Alex Hershaft, the AR2007 organizer, called the differences "a chasm" in the movement, but nevertheless sought to find common ground:

"Even as conservative an organization as the HSUS has condoned civil disobedience and open rescues in the past, both illegal and both involving some small element of violence. On the other hand of the spectrum, nearly everyone in the movement including ALF condemns acts designed to injure any living being. Thus, the only tactics that really are in dispute are massive property destruction and intimidation such as home visits. That's about it."

Hardly. With his next breath, Hershaft raised the conflict between abolitionists and welfarists, coming down on the side of abolitionists, noting that while no reputable abolitionist leader would oppose welfare reforms, "what we do oppose are animal rights activists who advocate welfare reforms. It wastes animal resources and legitimizes animal exploitation."

Lest there be any confusion where Hershaft comes down on militant tactics, he answered that firmly:

"Who needs the militants anyway? We all do, especially the animals. Granted that some individuals may have used animal rights as a cover-up for anti-social behavior and have given us a bad name. But the responsible militants among us play a key role as the conscience of this movement. […] What has kept me going …is the inspiration and dedication of our more militant brothers and sisters who are willing to lay down their careers and their freedoms for the animals. We all have different paths to animal liberation, but we all need the militants - especially the animals."

On Monday, following a morning of lessons in lobbying, California activists will go to the local offices of Senator Dianne Feinstein and several area Representatives to push for the repeal of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. SAEN's Michael Budkie will lead others on a protest against research at UCLA.

Obviously, much more information and insight was revealed at the AR2007 conference. Additional material will appear in AMP's subsequent reports, including the AMP News Service Digest and our coverage of the Taking Action for Animals meeting in Washington later this month.

Please feel free to distribute this report, keeping our contact information intact. As always, AMP's key contacts are welcome to be in touch for additional details.

Americans for Medical Progress
908 King Street Suite 301
Alexandria VA 22314
703 836 9595 amp@amprogress.org

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